John’s answer to every problem was to go to the river. So even though winter had covered it with its chill, we got out of the car and walked to the edge.
“How ya feeling?” John asked.
I smiled and thought about the question. I didn’t know exactly how I felt. When I had first arrived home I hated my mother. It was a relief that she was gone. Now curiosity reared. Fragmented memories meant something again, but I needed to fill the gaps.
“I was thinking…maybe I should try to find some of Sage’s old friends, maybe even Steven.” The idea gave me chills. “…and maybe I should talk more with Dr. Davenport…about Mother…see what he has to say.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” John supported. “I can help you with that…if you want help.”
Rachel nodded. I put my hands in my pockets and looked out at the river. Icy, brown water flowed, tiny ripples carrying tree debris. Just below the surface were small, dark-colored bugs. They scurried along nibbling on plant waste. These waters, now uneventful, months earlier were entangled with organisms. A hierarchy of predators and prey vying for their survival. This aquatic ecosystem was a reflection of my old life: we thrived on turbulence, battling insanity like Pike ambushing Bass. We grew closer, stronger, impervious to the threats around us until the season changed and a new predator arrived, one we locked in the basement and fed twice a day.
“Why can’t we just send her back?” I asked.
“I tried…we don’t have enough money…I think Aunt Mary took most of it.” Sage rested her forehead in her hands.
Mother swung the ax against the door. She struggled a bit to pull it free from the wood before swinging again; this time hitting a little higher.
“What happens when she breaks through the door?” I waited for Sage to answer.
We walked along the river’s edge, Rachel and I hand in hand. The river widened, stretching towards a steep slope we called “Death’s Slide.” John, Rachel, and I spent endless summer days rafting down this plunge, suspended over its edge until gravity won and we dropped down falling overboard. We screamed as the white waves slapped against our backs. Once we were back in the raft, we stretched out, our legs dangling over the side absorbing the sun’s rays. We laughed until our sides hurt.
“Are you having fun?” John asked.”
“Yeah,” I said, and that was the truth.
While on the river I didn’t think about my other life. It was a tiny blip in the back of my mind, Mother and Sage forever fading inside memory where love and loss were so intricately woven one became the other. We floated along admiring nature’s show—birds and butterflies flying above, fish and frogs swimming alongside. This was a new way of being, boundless, effortless. And I was having fun.
“Do you love Mother?” I asked Sage.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you love her?” I repeated, thinking about my own answer.
“Love’s a hard thing in our family…I don’t know if any of us will ever get it right.”
“Do you still love Steven?”
“I’ll always love Steven…but sometimes the two ends of your life don’t quite match up.” She sat quite for a while, rubbing her face. “…they don’t come together as you hoped they would. So one end keeps getting shorter and shorter…until it’s gone. Just like that.”
We kept walking out as far as we could go before the vegetation thickened. There in the river’s bend the water was tumultuous. I watched the rippling currents loaded with silt; loud, raging splashes filling my ears. Leafless Oak and Sycamore trees on either side, their branches overhanging, an arch we reached for. Rocks buried in a muddy cliff protruded, some round and smooth, others jagged and rough. We just stared. It felt powerful, nature’s vein pumping life through this channel. I thought about Sage, how she might have liked going to the river, how she might have found freedom here. I thought about how much happiness it would have brought her. Being the older sibling she understood disaster, how heavy it was. She knew that destruction, even second hand, can be all consuming. Our happiness was always fleeting, underscored by tragedy, its grip.
I don’t remember how long Mother was in the basement, how long she screamed for us to let her out, how long Sebastian and Margolis kept her hidden under the basement steps, how long she swung that ax into the door, the walls, the pillars; those days bleed together in my mind. I know Sage let her out one morning as we were leaving for school; it was a Wednesday, a month before the wedding (Steven had promised her it was still on, though he came around less now), two weeks before graduation. Mother seemed lucid. She had plans for the day—gardening and baking. Sebastian and Margolis were far away. We watched her throw her pills into her mouth. A quick inspection proved she had swallowed them. I felt good leaving and couldn’t wait to get back. Mother was pretty good at baking, not as good as Grandma Betty, but good enough.
By the time I got to school I had a pain in my stomach. The nurse gave me an Aspirin and told me to lay on the cot for a while. By lunchtime I was feeling better so I joined my friends at our table eating a few bites of beef stew and Saltines. After lunch was math. I was in Mrs. Walter’s class. She was talking about decimals, how to multiply them. “Don’t forget to move your decimals over the right number of spaces.” I looked down at my paper. My stomach was rumbling, nausea rising in my throat. I raised my hand and waited to be excused.
“Mrs. Walters…” I called out.
“Be quiet,” she barked.
I sat still, hoping the rising sickness would pass. But it didn’t. Vomit flew out of my mouth like a fire extinguisher; white, foamy, and under pressure. Maribelle, who was seated in front of me, jumped up and screamed when she realized speckles of vomit had landed in her hair.
I called home, but no one answered. I didn’t expect anyone would; mother was not one to answer the phone and Sage was at school. The appearance that our life was normal was more important, so I called and called again.
“Mother’s probably in the garden,” I said.
Wild grass and bulky branches amputated by wind and rain littered the ground. I clasped my hands behind my back and strolled along the water’s edge. This was where chaos and clutter collected. My last memories of Sage drowned there. Her lifeless body, bloody on the basement floor I imagined sinking here in the bend. Her last moments frightening until death arrived and she slipped away weighed down by a peace so heavy it would be everlasting. I missed her. The few details of her death I remembered has been formed by my ten-year-old mind and now offered only the tips of truth. Blood. Detailed lists outlining all that she still needed for the wedding. Blood. Invitations—their corners stained. Blood. A draft of her vows soaked. In blood. Shoe prints all around her, menacing, permanent. Who did they belong to? Mother didn’t wear shoes. My mind stopped there, too afraid to consider the other option—Steven. These thoughts tasted like poison so I pushed them away, reminding myself that, though we couldn’t see it now, after the bend when the river widens again new waters were ready to cover us. This was life, ever changing.